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Afghan earthquakes kill at least 21, destroy homes

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BHEZAD KHEIL, Afghanistan — Two earthquakes shook eastern Afghanistan early Friday, collapsing mud-brick homes on top of villagers while they slept and killing at least 21 people.

The quakes hit four villages in the high mountains of the eastern province of Nangarhar, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Pakistan border.

Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountain range is hit by dozens of minor earthquakes each year. Many Afghan homes are made of dried mud, so even moderate earthquakes can cause many deaths and major damage. The poverty-stricken nation is also battling a strengthened Taliban insurgency, and four people were killed in attacks Friday.

Shafiqullah, from the village of Bhezad Kheil, said 21 people were buried in a cemetery following the quake, including two of his young neighbors. Nijad, 10, and Sima, 7, both died after the roof above their second-story bedroom collapsed, raining down wood beams and chunks of mud, he said.

"There were two shakes," said Shafiqullah, 30. "The first shake was very strong, when everyone was asleep. The first shake destroyed everything. Then the crying and the shouting started."

The quakes destroyed or damaged an estimated 100 houses in the four villages in Sherzad district, about 50 miles (90 kilometers) east of Kabul, said governor's spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai.

The U.S. Geological Survey said Nangarhar province was hit by two earthquakes _ a 5.5 magnitude quake at about 2 a.m., and a 5.1 magnitude aftershock two hours later.

A villager in Sherzad, Shah Mohammad Khan, told The Associated Press that 40 people were killed and 60 wounded, but government officials have not confirmed those figures.

Ambulances from the Afghan Red Crescent Society helped ferry the wounded from the remote earthquake site, reachable only after hours of travel on bumpy dirt roads.

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said a U.S. convoy of humanitarian supplies and medical responders was headed to the quake zone. He extended condolences to the victims.

U.S. forces stationed in the region also were standing by to assist if the Afghan government requested help, said spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias.

In the latest violence, two suicide bombers on foot tried to attack the office of the minister of refugees in southern Nimroz province on Friday. Guards shot and killed one bomber at the scene of the attempted attack, while the second bomber fled. While running away, the second bomber detonated his explosives, killing three civilians, said Nimroz Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad.

In the north, a Norwegian intelligence officer serving with the nation's peacekeeping force was killed Friday by a roadside bomb near the city of Maymana, said Kjetil Eide, the Norwegian Joint Headquarters spokesman.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said it released 14 detainees held at the military prison at Bagram. The 14 were transferred to the Afghan government under a reconciliation program. The 14 _ detained for alleged attacks on Afghan and allied forces _ had to renounce violence and swear allegiance to the Afghan government, the military said.

The military said 529 detainees have been released from Bagram since 2005, and only two have been detained again for subsequent insurgent activities.

___

Associated Press writer Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

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